Packages for the Independent Traveler
In addition to searching for the lowest airfare, you may want to consider booking your flight as part of a travel package. Buying a package is a way to get the airfare, accommodations, and other elements of your trip (such as car rentals, airport transfers, and even meals and activities) at the same time and often at discounted prices -- kind of like one-stop shopping. In fact, package tours usually provide the best bargains, especially to expensive French Polynesia.
Package tours are not the same thing as escorted tours, which are structured tours with a group leader. Few escorted tours go to the South Pacific islands except as add-ons to tours primarily of Australia and New Zealand.
The costs are kept down because wholesale tour operators (known as wholesalers in the travel industry) can make volume bookings on the airlines and at the hotels. Packages traditionally were then sold through retail travel agents, but many wholesalers now deal directly with the public, thus passing savings along to you, rather than part of their commissions to retail agents.
Travel packages are listed in the travel section of many Sunday newspapers. Or check ads in magazines such as Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel Magazine, Travel & Leisure, National Geographic Traveler, and Condé Nast Traveler.
Airlines frequently offer air-and-hotel packages, so check the Web sites of Air New Zealand (www.airnewzealand.com/vacations) Air Pacific (www.airpacific.com), Air Tahiti Nui (www.airtahitinui.com), Qantas Airlines www.qantasvacations.com), and the other South Pacific carriers.
Some local tourism information offices have information about agencies selling packages to their countries. For example, Tahiti Tourisme provides links to many money-saving packages to French Polynesia on its North American website (www.tahiti-tourisme.com).
Ask Before You Go -- Before you invest in a package deal or an escorted tour:
- Always ask about the cancellation policy. Can you get your money back? Is there a deposit required?
- Ask about the accommodations choices and prices for each. Then look up the hotels' reviews in a Frommer's guide and check their rates online for your specific dates of travel. Also find out what types of rooms are offered.
- Discuss what is included in the price (transportation, meals, tips, airport transfers, and so on).
- Finally, look for hidden expenses. Ask whether airport departure fees and taxes, for example, are included in the total cost -- they rarely are.
International Tour Agents -- Following in alphabetical order are some reputable American-based companies selling package tours. Some will discount air tickets and hotel rooms separately; that is, not as part of a package. Be sure to shop for the best deal among them.
- Blue Pacific Vacations (tel. 800/798-0590; www.bluepacificvacations.com), a division of France Vacations, is headed by John Biggerstaff and Ken Jordan, two veterans of Tahiti tourism. They will customize tours to most French Polynesian islands.
- Brendan Worldwide Vacations (tel. 800/421-8446 or 818/785-9696; www.brendanvacations.com) provides packages to Fiji and French Polynesia.
- Costco Travel (tel. 877/849-2730; www.costco.com) sells island packages to Costco members. The agency was a South Pacific specialist before Costco bought it.
- GoGo Worldwide Vacations (tel. 617/734-2350; www.gogovacationdeals.com), headquartered in Massachusetts, specializes in French Polynesia.
- Go-Today (tel. 800/227-3235; www.go-today.com), based in Washington State, offers discount-priced packages to Fiji, French Polynesia, and the Cook Islands.
- Islands in the Sun (tel. 800/828-6877 or 310/536-0051; www.islandsinthesun.com), the largest and oldest South Pacific specialist, offers packages to all the islands.
- Jetabout Island Vacations (tel. 800/348-8145; www.jetabouttahitivacations.com) of El Segundo, California, offers a wide variety of packages to Fiji and Tahiti. It's the U.S. representative of Qantas Vacations.
- Journey Pacific (tel. 800/704-7094; www.journeypacific.com) is a Las Vegas-based agency offering packages to all of the islands.
- Newmans South Pacific Vacations (tel. 800/421-3326; www.newmansvacations.com) offers packages to the islands, including Samoa and Tonga. It's a long-established New Zealand company.
- Pacific Destination Center (tel. 800/227-5317; www.pacific-destinations.com) is owned and operated by Australian-born Janette Ryan, who offers some good deals to the islands.
- Pacific for Less (tel. 800/915-2776; www.pacific-for-less.com), based in Hawaii, has reasonably priced packages to French Polynesia, although its specialty is high-end honeymoons.
- Pleasant Holidays (tel. 800/742-9244; www.pleasantholidays.com), a huge company best known for its Pleasant Hawaiian and Pleasant Mexico operations, offers packages to Fiji and French Polynesia.
- South Pacific Direct (www.southpacificdirect.com) is an Internet-only firm offering deals to all the islands.
- South Seas Adventures (tel. 800/576-7327; www.south-seas-adventures.com) has packages to Samoa and Tonga as well as Fiji, French Polynesia, and the Cook Islands.
- Swain Tahiti Tours (tel. 800/22-SWAIN [227-9246]; www.swaintours.com) obviously knows a lot about Tahiti and French Polynesia, but it also sells packages to Fiji and the Cook Islands.
- Sunspots International (tel. 800/334-5623 or 503/666-3893; www.sunspotsintl.com), based in Portland, Oregon, has trips to all the islands. It has particular expertise in the Cook Islands, Samoa, and Tonga.
- Tahiti Discount Travel (tel. 877/426-7262; www.tahiti-discounttravel.com) is owned by former employees of the defunct Discover Wholesale Travel, once the leader in budget packages. Today they arrange some of the lowest-priced packages to French Polynesia.
- Tahiti Legends (tel. 800/200-1213; www.tahiti-legends.com) is run by former officials of Islands in the Sun. It sells tours to French Polynesia, the Cook Islands, and Fiji under the names Pacific Legends (www.pacificlegends.com).
- Tahiti Vacations (tel. 800/553-3477; www.tahitivacation.com), a subsidiary of Air Tahiti, French Polynesia's domestic airline, specializes in French Polynesia but also has packages to Fiji, the Cook Islands, and Tonga. It frequently offers the least-expensive packages available to Tahiti and Moorea.
- Travel Arrangements Ltd. (tel. 800/392-8213; www.southpacificreservations.com) is operated by Fiji-born Ron Hunt, a veteran South Pacific travel agent based in California. He sells packages to all the islands and specializes in designing itineraries (and weddings) to suit your whims and pocketbook.
- Travelwizard (tel. 800/330-8820; www.travelwizard.com) specializes in designing luxury travel packages to all the islands but also has less expensive offerings. It also has adventure, diving, and surfing trips to Fiji and French Polynesia.
Other companies have adventure travel packages combining outdoor activities with accommodations.
Local Tour Operators -- Another tactic is to check with the South Pacific inbound tour operators. These companies are in the islands and usually put together the local elements of tour packages such as hotel rooms and airport transfers. They have the advantage of being on the scene and thus familiar with the local airlines and hotels. Some sell directly to inbound visitors as well as other tour companies.
In Fiji, two small companies specialize in discount travel arrangements: Impulse Fiji (tel. 800/953-7595 in the U.S.; 672-0600 in Fiji; www.impulsefiji.com) and Sun Vacations (tel. 672-4273 in Fiji; www.sunvacationsfiji.com).
In French Polynesia, Tahiti Nui Travel (tel. 46.40.10 in Tahiti; www.tahitinuitravel.com) has a variety of local packages, while True Tahiti Vacations (tel. 310/464-1490 in the U.S.; www.truetahitivacation.com) is operated by American-born Laurel Samuela, who lives on Moorea.
In the Cook Islands, Island Hopper Vacations (tel. 22-026 in Rarotonga; www.islandhoppervacations.com) books hotels and puts together local packages, as does Jetsave Travel (tel. 27-707 in Rarotonga; www.jetsave.co.ck), which is owned by American ex-pat Malynnda Morrisette, who lives in the Cooks.
Oceania Travel & Tours is good in Samoa (tel. 24-443 in Apia, inside the Hotel Kitano in Tusatala.
In Tonga, I highly recommend Pacific Travel Marketing (tel. 28-304; firstname.lastname@example.org) for both hotel and airline reservations.
Escorted General-Interest Tours
Escorted tours are structured group tours, with a group leader (I prefer the old-fashioned term "tour guide"). The price usually includes everything from airfare to hotels, meals, tours, admission costs, and local transportation.
Escorted tours are not a big part of the business in these small islands, where it's easy to find your way around and book local tours and activities. Most of the travel agents I mention under "Packages for the Independent Traveler," above, will have someone meet and greet you at the airport upon arrival, take you to your hotel, and make sure you get on any prearranged tours and activities, but you will not have a tour guide.
Some tour companies add a short stop-over in Fiji or Tahiti to their escorted tours of Australia and New Zealand, but these may not include a guide for the island portion. Leaders in this add-on feature include Tauck Tours (tel. 800/788-7885; www.tauck.com), Qantas Vacations (tel. 800/641-8772; www.qantasvacations.com), Australia Escorted Tours (tel. 888/333-6607; www.australia-escorted-tours.com), and Abercrombie & Kent (tel. 800/652-7986; www.abercrombiekent.com), which adds Fiji and French Polynesia to its high-end escorted tours. Otherwise, I recommend getting a travel agent to track down an escorted tour.
Despite the fact that escorted tours require big deposits and predetermine hotels, restaurants, and itineraries, many people derive security and peace of mind from the structure they offer. Escorted tours let travelers sit back and enjoy the trip without having to drive or worry about details. They're convenient for people with limited mobility and they can be a great way to make new friends.
On the downside, you'll have little opportunity for serendipitous interactions with locals. The tours can be jam-packed with activities, leaving little room for individual sightseeing, whim, or adventure -- plus they often focus on the heavily touristed sites, so you miss out on many a lesser-known gem.
Although outdoor activities take first place in the islands, you can also spend your time learning a new craft, exploring the reefs as part of a conservation project, and whale- and dolphin-watching.
Bird-Watching -- Avid bird-watchers are likely to see terns, boobies, herons, petrols, noddies, and many other seabirds throughout the islands. French Polynesia alone has 28 species of breeding seabirds, making memorable a visit to Motu Puarua and Motu Oeone, tiny islets out in Tikihau's lagoon, where noddies and snowy white fairy terns nest.
The number and variety of land birds diminishes as you go eastward. Most live in the bush away from settlements and the accompanying cats, dogs, and rats, so you will need to head into the bush for the best watching.
With 26 endemic species, Fiji has more diversity than the other island countries. Many are on display in Kula Eco Park (tel. 650-0505; www.fijiwild.com), on Fiji's Coral Coast. Taveuni island is best for watching in Fiji, with more than 100 species including the rare orange dove, which lives high on Des Veoux Peak. Savusavu on Vanua Levu is also good, especially the nearby Waisali Rainforest Reserve. Daku Resort in Savusavu (tel. 885-0046; www.dakuresort.com) hosts bird-watching tours hosted by veteran Fiji watcher Robin Mercer.
In French Polynesia, Société d'Ornithologie de Polynésie (Ornithological Society of Polynesia; tel. 50.62.09; www.manu.pf) lists local birds on its website.
In the Cook Islands, the Takitumu Conservation Area on Rarotonga is home to the rare kakeroi, which has recovered from near-extinction status.
A few companies have bird-watching tours to the South Pacific, including the U.K.-based Bird Quest (tel. 44/1254-826317; www.birdquest.co.uk) and Birdwatching Breaks (tel. 44/1381-610495; www.birdwatchingbreaks.com).
Educational Courses -- In addition to bird-watching, Daku Resort, in northern Fiji (tel. 885-0046; www.dakuresort.com) hosts weeklong courses in such subjects as novel writing, sketching, painting, quilting, and gospel singing. The courses are organized by creative-writing teacher Delia Rothnie-Jones (she and husband John own the resort). They have special package rates for the courses and will help you arrange air transportation to Fiji.
Ecotravel Tours -- The Oceanic Society (tel. 800/326-7491; www.oceanicsociety.org), an award-winning organization based in California, has natural history and ecotourism expeditions to the islands. A naturalist accompanies its annual 11-day snorkeling trip to the pristine reefs off Taveuni and Namena islands in northern Fiji. The trip includes village visits and bird-watching.
Seacology (tel. 510/559-3505; www.seacology.org), a California-based organization dedicated to preserving island cultures and environments, has an annual trip to Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort and occasionally to Samoa.
Fiji Adventures (tel. 888/418-4461; www.fijiadventures.com) offers several packages, one of which combines several cultural activities offered in Fiji such as river rafting, cave and waterfall visits, and a trip into Viti Levu's interior. The packages do not include airfare, but they save you from having to arrange each activity after you arrive in Fiji.
Formerly known as Tui Tai Adventure Cruises, environmentally and culturally friendly Active Fiji (www.tuitai.com, or www.activefiji.com) uses a 140-foot sailing schooner to explore out-of-the-way islands in northern Fiji. The boat goes to Fijian villages and carries bikes as well snorkeling and diving gear.
Based in London but with an office in the U.S., the nonprofit Greenforce (tel. 0207/470-8888 in London, 740/416-4016 in the U.S.; www.greenforce.org) sends expeditions to help survey Fiji's coral reefs for the World Conservation Society. They'll even teach you to dive while you're there. The trips last from 6 to 10 weeks. Check the website for prices.
Whale- & Dolphin-Watching -- Whale- and dolphin-watching are popular activities throughout the South Pacific. Dolphins live here year-round, and humpback whales escape the cold of Antarctica and spend from July until October giving birth to their calves in the tropical South Pacific. They can be seen swimming off many islands, but the prime whale-watching venue is off Vava'u, in Tonga, where you can actually swim in the water alongside these magnificent mammals. Several companies on Vava'u will organize visits.
The California-based Oceanic Society (tel. 800/326-7491; www.oceanicsociety.org) has 1-week whale-watching trips to Tonga in September. Cost is about US$3,000 per person. You must be experienced snorkeler to swim with the whales.
The best dolphin-watching experiences are on Moorea in French Polynesia, where American marine biologist Dr. Michael Poole leads daylong excursions to visit some of the 150 spinner dolphins he has identified as regular residents. Honeymooners love to have their pictures taken while swimming with the intelligent mammals in a fenced-in area at Moorea Dolphin Center, at the Inter-Continental Resort & Spa Moorea.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.